Of Guns and Glamor




Try this little experiment sometime. Go to a movie rental kiosk from Redbox or Blockbuster Express – or browse through one online – and count the number of films that have a gun depicted on the cover. You may be astonished by the results. I recently counted 26 out of a stock of about 150 movies. (There were also a number of other phallic implements of mayhem, such as swords.) Over and over we see the various incarnations of James Bond, Dirty Harry, Wyatt Earp and Luke Skywalker reminding us that guns are cool, efficient and oh so sexy. I enjoy a well-done action flick as well as the next guy, and I don’t mind cinematic violence when it serves the story, but isn’t this–well, overkill?

Hollywood has a well-deserved reputation for being “liberal”, and yet it repeatedly indulges in cheerleading for the ultra-right wing gun lobby with its facile presentations of firearms as the first solution rather than the last.  There is disagreement among experts (no, that category does not include the NRA) about the impact this has on the public in terms of encouraging violence.  But it’s hard to imagine that it could be constructive. It’s unlikely that movie violence in general prompts its viewers to be more violent, and even the glorification of guns in particular might not be especially detrimental. But perhaps the real question is whether it has a significant effect in combination with other elements, such as the ready availability of weapons, ideological extremism, and a general cultural tendency toward confrontation, paranoia and irrational rage.

The gun culture would have us believe that cooler heads will prevail no matter how much hardware is in circulation. But there is often a huge difference between what people say they will do and what they actually do in the heat of crisis. Furthermore, even if we assume that every card-carrying member of the NRA will only use his or her toys in a responsible manner (a tall assumption), it’s staggeringly naive to believe that such a responsible attitude will extend to all gun owners- and the naivete increases as the number of owners increases.  We have the ample example of history to remind us how deadly things get when lead is substituted for brains.

Hollywood is in many respects inaccurate in its portrayals of the “Wild West”, but one thing it gets right is that people lived – and all too often died – by their guns. With few legal restraints, almost everyone had one (or more) and many used one at every opportunity. It was not unheard of for someone to be shot, for instance, in his sleep for snoring too loudly.

In even more recent days, my grandfather spent several months in jail as a young man after fatally shooting another fellow at a dance. He was eventually released when the court ruled it was self-defense. But what a senseless tragedy for him, the man he killed, and everyone who knew either of them.  Had you asked him about it, he probably would have told you that killing someone, even in self defense, isn’t nearly as glorious as Hollywood and the gun culture would have you believe. But this was far from an isolated incident. It was a time when people brought guns to dances because that’s just what people did. And it’s a time that the NRA is trying to take us back to.

What is to be done about Hollywood’s love affair with the Uzi and the Luger? Probably nothing. On a personal level, I tend to avoid renting any of those 26 movies, though it’s not because I’m trying to make a statement. It’s just that I’ve found that a gun on the cover is generally a tip-off that the film inside isn’t worth my time, because it’s probably a formulaic paean to the simpleminded ideology of violence as a virtue. (There are numerous exceptions to this guideline, of course.) But I don’t expect this to make any difference to Hollywood, and I doubt it would make much difference if a lot of people did it.  The Twenty-First Century American zeitgeist holds guns to be cool, efficient and oh so sexy. And therefore they’re highly profitable.


  1. My biggest problem with Hollywood is the number of actors who happily participate in the glorification of gun misuse, then give money and facetime to fund efforts to ban or heavily control guns.

    The tragedy for your grandfather is that a situation got to the point that someone was forced to take lethal action. In a perfect world, that would never happen.

    The NRA’s goal, besides teaching gun safety, which they do quite well, is to make sure those who understand that you are the one responsible for your own personal safety have access to an effective means of self-defense.

    Your comments about the inaccuracy of Hollywood “Wild West” portrayals is interesting. You claim that guns were widely used and widely available. “Days of the Wild West” is commonly uttered by anti-self-defense people when concealed carry laws are under reform. But I don’t think a comprehensive study has ever been conducted. It’d be nice – earth-shattering, but nice – if both Bradys and the NRA et al would co-fund a study like that. No, I don’t think it would ever happen.

    • As I see it, it’s not the “misuse” of guns in cinema that’s a problem. Those who misuse guns are by definition villains, and as a rule they’re clearly identified as such. But the USE of guns for defense, which may be justified is some cases, is another matter. Not that it should never be presented as an option, but by implication it’s so often suggested as the best or only way to deal with a threat.

      Exactly, the incident with my grandfather didn’t have to happen. And here’s the thing: it apparently wasn’t a case of a genuine evildoer making a deliberate threat. It was just a case of tempers (possibly tempered by alcohol, I don’t know) getting out of hand, and since guns happened to be conveniently on hand, they were immediately summoned instead of wits. That scenario still plays out far too often.

      Alas, the NRA’s only goal isn’t teaching gun safety. I only wish that were the case. In recent years, that objective seems to have taken a back seat to promoting gun sales, the election of right-wing extremists and the smearing of political figures who are not right-wing extremists, no matter how they stand on gun issues.

      Another interesting fact about the Wild West: guns were far less dependable than they are now. That might sound alarming to you, but it actually saved a few lives. There were cases when a couple of hot-heads tried to shoot it out, only to walk away without a mark on either of them, because neither could make his weapon fire. Sometimes I almost wish firearms were still that clumsy!

      • POP, to keep gunplay in perspective, here are a few details you might enjoy. The guns of the “Wild West” is more of a myth than one might think. The plethora of personal guns was an offshoot of the Civil War, which ended in 1865. Within seventeen years, Darwin eliminated much of the behavior.

        Demise of major gunslingers:
        1866 First crimes by Cole Younger gang, which included Jesse James
        1870 First cattle drive, to an Abilene KS railyard
        1871 as many as 5,000 cowboys were being paid off during a single day
        June 25, 1876 Custer killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn
        Aug. 2 1876 Wild Bill Hickock shot in the back of the head at Deadwood, SD
        1876 Sept. 7 Jesse James injured, Northfield Minnesota
        1878 Jul 15-19 The 5-day Battle of Lincoln occurred in New Mexico
        1878 Butch Cassidy’s crimes began (they would extend to 1908) .
        1881 Billy the Kid shot by Pat Garret at Ft. Sumpter.
        Oct 26 1881 Tombstone Heyday: Gunfight near the OK Corral
        1882 Jesse James murdered by Bob Ford
        1882 Earp Vendetta claimed Curley Bill Brocius and 3 to 14 others.

        Only the wild west-type crimes of Butch Cassidy seem relevant to the general subject of Wild West gunplay after this point. The History Channel’s observation is that women (who wanted schools and churches) tamed the Wild West, not Samuel Colt.

      • Yes, there are many misconceptions about the Wild West. (As there are about any other period of history.) Quite often, they involved the glorification of guys who were actually of less than stellar character — the Earp gang and Billy the Kid being good cases in point. Thanks for your input.

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